War bride, toddler twins, and over 200 others land in Tel Aviv hours before rocket attack one mile away.
Ilana Barta, a 23-year-old from Teaneck, N.J., walked off the plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport Tuesday morning with her wedding dress in hand. Her fiancé, a 22-year-old from Efrat, is an officer in the Paratrooper unit currently on active duty in Gaza. Though she hasn’t heard from him since the ground operation began, their wedding is scheduled for Aug. 17.
“You can’t let fear rule your life,” said Barta, who is the third child in her family to make aliyah, during a phone interview from her sister’s home in Givat Shmuel near Tel Aviv. A graduate of the Macaulay Honors program at Queens College, Barta will begin training at the Technion Medical School this fall. She and her fiancé, Akiva, plan to live in Haifa.
Barta is one of 228 new olim from the United States and Canada who arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday on a Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah charter flight. The flight included 100 children making aliyah with their parents, 54 singles, and 21 Lone Soldiers who will be joining the Israeli army upon arrival. (Two Lone Soldiers, Max Steinberg, 24, from Southern California and Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, from South Padre Island, Texas, have been killed in the fighting in Gaza.)
Each new immigrant received a special booklet from the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption on security measures, such as what to do when a Code Red siren sounds warning of incoming rockets.
The flight landed just hours before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a notice prohibiting all U.S. airlines from flying to or from Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport. The notice, which was set to last for 24 hours, was issued in response to a rocket strike that landed approximately one mile away from the airport.
After the ban was announced, Delta diverted a flight en route from JFK to Tel Aviv, sending its 273 passengers and 17 crew members to Paris instead.
A slew of other airlines also canceled their flights to Tel Aviv Tuesday, including Air Canada, Lufthansa, Austria Airlines, Germanwings and Swissair, according to Israeli media reports, while El Al vowed to continue serving Ben-Gurion.
The ban comes a day after the U.S. State Department posted a travel warning on its website, recommending that citizens “consider the deferral of non-essential travel” to Israel.
“The security environment remains complex in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, and U.S. citizens need to be aware of the risks of travel to these areas because of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel,” the State Department warning said. The advisory noted the capability of long-range rockets launched from Gaza to reach Tel-Aviv.
While the new olim were still in the airport, a siren sounded, warning of the nearby rocket strike.
“We weren’t scared,” said Sharon Amar, 32, who made aliyah with his wife, Melody, and their three young children, a 4-year-old daughter and twin 2-year-old boys. The Amar family had been living in Delaware and will be moving to a small moshav near the town of Netivot, less than 10 miles from Gaza. The moshav is in walking distance from Kibbutz Nir Am, the site where 10 Hamas militants attempted a terror attack through the group’s complex tunneling system.
“We know this will end sooner or later,” said Sharon, who grew up in Netivot and served in the IDF beginning in 2000. “We have faith in the army, and we won’t stop living our lives because of terrorists,” he said.
The Amar family is not alone. Tony Gelbart, co-founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, wrote on the group’s Facebook page that 1,300 olim made aliyah last week — “more than the missiles that they’ve sent” he wrote.
Yael Katsman, director of communications for Nefesh B’Nefesh, said, “We are hoping for a 5 to10 percent rise in aliyah this year,” despite security concerns. As similar to the prior conflicts with Gaza in 2012 and 2008-9, Katsman has seen “few cancellations” with regard to aliyah plans.
Though few olim have cancelled their plans, Tuesday’s flight was the first aliyah charter plane not to receive a ceremony of welcome upon arrival in Israel. The ceremony was cancelled due to security concerns. Still, a ceremony was held for the olim at JFK Airport before departure, and several dignitaries were there to greet them upon arrival in Tel Aviv.
“Today’s aliyah flight demonstrates the great resilience of the Jewish people and its determination to build the State of Israel,” said Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founder and executive director, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass. (The group, which is partially funded by the Israeli government, facilitates the immigration process.) “These olim, who are choosing to move to Israel in these difficult times are instilling hope, optimism and strength throughout Israel and the Jewish nation. The outpouring of requests we received to join the flight out of solidarity for the citizens of Israel is inspiring.”
The timing of her move was not lost on Ilana Barta.
“Everyone on our flight knows very well that we’re entering Israel during a harsh time,” she said. “There aren’t any secrets or deceptions. We’re making an active choice to go despite concerns.” She described the feeling of “strength and optimism” that permeated the plane. “Everyone here is fulfilling a dream,” she said.
For Melody Amar that dream began when she met Sharon. She had been in Israel only once before making aliyah, when she came to meet Sharon’s family shortly after their wedding in 2006. A New Jersey native, she met Sharon while working at a mall in Delaware. “And here we are today — it’s hard to believe,” she said.
Despite the tenuous situation, Melody feels prepared. She grew accustomed to the sounds of rocket fire when she served in the United States Army in Iraq in 2003. Still, being a parent means she is automatically on “high alert.”
“As a mother, I’m naturally going to worry about the safety of my children,” she said. “I hope this all ends soon so we can return to a quiet Israel.”
Unlike the majority of people waiting for the El-Al flight to board late Monday, Sara Seligson, mother of two from Far Rockaway, Queens, was staying behind. She was there to say goodbye to her 24-year-old son, Shimshon, and his 23-year-old wife, Rebecca, who were making aliyah.
“We were all sitting on the floor of JFK, waiting together,” she said. “I didn’t cry until the final goodbyes when they were boarding the plane.”
Even while knowing the strained situation that awaited her son and daughter-in-law upon arrival, Seligson never considered telling them not to go.
“I’m not scared of sending them,” she said. “Not one person on the flight backed out, and neither would I.”
She was confident that her children would “know the proper protocols” upon arrival (She, of course, could not know that a rocket would strike a mile away from the airport shortly after they landed.)
“They know the proper protocol. I’m sure their first experience of a siren will be daunting, but they’ll get used to it.”
Seligson stopped for moment, reflecting. “And maybe, someday, they won’t have to.”
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